How To Write An Essay About Someone Famous

A teacher at one of my recent college essay workshops asked,

“What are some good ways for kids to approach the Common Application essay prompt about a person who’s influenced them?"

Here a few tips.

1.  Remember what “influence” means.

Influence is defined as, “the action or process of producing effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of another…”  The fact that you admire someone doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve influenced you.  There needs to be some action or change in your actions, behavior or opinions.   That means you'll need to give specific examples of those things.  Deciding to improve your behavior in school, visiting a particular college you previously refused to see, spending more time volunteering at the soup kitchen—if you did those things because of someone else, that’s influence. 

2. Don’t choose this prompt to try to sound impressive.

The Common Application actually gives you five choices of essay prompts.  A lot of students who choose this one write about a famous activist, politician, or someone else notable in an effort to sound impressive.  Again, you have to remember what “influence” means.  The admissions committee doesn’t need to be convinced that Martin Luther King or Gandhi are admirable.  Unless you can point to specific examples of how someone famous really has affected your actions, behavior or opinions, choose someone else (or chose a different topic). 

3. Focus on the influence, not the person.

The exact wording of the question is, “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.”  The subtext there is that you shouldn’t spend the entire essay describing why this person is so wonderful.  Spend the essay talking about you—your behavior, actions and beliefs—and how those have changed or strengthened as a result of this person’s influence. 

4.    Write an essay nobody else could write.

An essay about how your mother has inspired you to work hard is a nice essay.  But it will read exactly like hundreds of other students’ essays.  Instead, be specific.  Give details.   Write an essay that no other student could write.  And if it’s about your mom, give enough specific examples so that nobody else’s essay about their own mother will be quite like yours.

You can find even more advice in our video, “How to Write Great College Essays.”  It’s $12.99 and available as a streaming download.

Filed Under: College essays

Writing a college admissions essay about a famous person is similar to writing about your grandmother, it’s tricky to write about a famous person.  You risk writing a short academic paper rather than a true personal statement.

Here are 7 tips for keeping your essay about a famous person interesting (note: the first two tips are very similar to the tips for writing about your grandmother!):

1.       Focus on you, not on the famous person.  Write your thoughts and opinions about the person.

2.       If you find you have written more than one sentence in a row that is all about the famous person instead of about you, add the word “I” or “me” to at least one of the sentences!

3.       Do NOT copy information from the internet about the person and put it in your essay.  It will be crystal clear to the admissions committee that you did not write that part of the essay, and it is extremely easy to copy and paste text and put it into Google.  If anything pops up in the results containing that text, you will NOT get into college.

4.       Think about the first time you heard about the famous person, saw the person on television, read a book by the person, or saw the person’s artwork.  What were your thoughts in that moment?  How did the person, book or artwork affect you?

5.       What happened next?  Did you go research more about the person?  Did you start reading every book by the person?  Did your friends and family start giving you books about the person or his or her work?

Tell the story as it progressed of what you learned about the person, and about what kept you interested.

6.       Talk about how your understanding of the person’s influence or work changed over time.  As you matured, did you start to gain a deeper understanding or see things from a different perspective?  Share the details of this process.

7.       Tell us how this person or work has had an impact on your life.  How are you different because of your contact with and knowledge of this person?

As you can see, writing about a famous person can actually be very personal.  The personal side is what will keep the attention of the admissions committee members.  Remember, they are just as capable as you are of using Google and Wikipedia to find out about a famous person’s life.  What they want to read about is your unique experience.

For examples of successful college essays, The Essay Expert recommends Accepted!  50 Successful College Admissions Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe.

Still not sure how to write a great college application essay about your sport?  Contact The Essay Expert for a FREE 15 minute consultation.

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